What's a Bee?

Bee, or honeybee, is the word many people use to describe any flying insect that has wings and a stinger. But honeybees are really only one of a group of insects that includes other bees, wasps, and ants.

Bees are fuzzy insects that feed on flowers. There are thousands of different types of bees worldwide, and they can be many different colors. The most familiar kind of bee is the honeybee. These bees build nests out of wax in old trees and manmade hives (like the ones that beekeepers take care of) and spend a lot of their time collecting nectar and pollen from flowers. Then they turn the nectar into honey for food.

Wasps are closely related to bees, but instead of only feeding on pollen and honey, wasps eat animal food, other insects, or spiders. They are not fuzzy like bees, but seem kind of smooth and shiny, and they have skinnier bodies. There are also thousands of different types of wasps in the world. Two common types of wasps are bald-faced hornets and yellowjackets:

  • Bald-faced hornets are black with white markings, and they build papery nests shaped like footballs in trees and shrubs.
  • Yellowjackets have yellow and black stripes on their bodies and are smaller than hornets and honeybees. They make their nests in the ground or in old tree stumps.

Ants are small insects that can be brown, black, or red. Some have wings and others don't. Some ants can sting, like the fire ant. Fire ants are tiny and reddish-brown and live in nests under the ground.

What a Sting Looks and Feels Like

Honeybees, wasps, hornets, fire ants, and yellowjackets may look different and have different homes, but they all sting when they are upset! If a person is stung by any of these insects, the sting will feel a lot like a shot at the doctor's office.

The site of the sting will feel hot and it may itch. A red bump surrounded by white skin will develop around the sting, except for the sting of the fire ant, which turns into an itchy blister.

Wasps and many bees can sting more than once because they are able to pull out their stinger without injuring themselves. Only honeybees have special hooks on their stinger that keep the stinger in the skin after a person is stung. The stinger gets torn out of the bee's body as it tries to fly away. As a result, the honeybee dies after stinging.

What You Should Do

If you think you have been stung by one of these insects, tell an adult immediately. Some people are allergic to stings from insects. The symptoms of an allergic reaction include hives (red patches on the skin that sting and itch), nausea, dizziness, a tight feeling in the throat, or difficulty breathing. A person who has these symptoms needs medical attention right away.

But usually, you can follow these steps after getting stung:

  • Have an adult help you remove the stinger, if one is left behind after a honeybee sting. (It doesn't really matter how it's removed. What is important is that it's removed as quickly as possible.)
  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Apply some ice to the area.
  • Ask your mom or dad for a pain reliever.

What a Doctor Will Do

Call the doctor if you or your parent are worried about the redness, swelling, or itching. Sometimes, the doctor will suggest giving a medicine called an antihistamine to control these symptoms.

If someone has an allergic reaction to a bee sting, a doctor must immediately give a shot that fights the reaction. People who know that they are allergic to bee stings also sometimes carry emergency medicine that they can give to themselves to prevent a severe reaction from happening.

How to Avoid Getting Stung

If you know you are allergic to bees or other insects, you'll want to take extra steps to avoid getting bitten or stung. You may want to avoid places where they spend time, like gardens or orchards in bloom.

No one likes to get stung, so here's some advice for everyone:

  • Wear shoes outdoors.
  • Don't disturb hives or insect nests.
  • Don't wear sweet-smelling perfume, lotions, or hair products.
  • Avoid bright-colored or flower-printed clothing.
  • Cover food when eating outdoors.
  • Be careful when outside with open soda cans because yellowjackets like to climb inside for a sip.
  • Watch out for garbage cans because they attract bees and yellowjackets.

If a bee or wasp flies around you, stay calm and don't swat at it. If you get stung, tell an adult and go indoors right away.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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